By guest contributor Pink Panther

Recently, I contacted Miles Lacey, the forty-five year old administrator of the Facebook page of the NZ Beneficiaries and Unemployed Workers Union. We chatted about his work and experiences of welfare.

PP: Let’s begin with a basic question: would you describe yourself as an  Anarchist?

Miles: I’ve always been a political person but my views have changed across my lifetime. I began quite right-wing and conservative and have been moving steadily leftwards. I guess that’s a reversal of the usual pattern. I was sympathetic to anarchism for a very brief time but it never stuck. At the moment the best label id apply is that I’m a socialist.

PP: How did you end up becoming an advocate for beneficiaries and unemployed workers?

Miles: I had been unemployed for many years before I got a job with WINZ as a Case Manager and discovered how horrid a case manager’s life could be. Afterwards I was looking for work and ended up getting a job as a Beneficiary Advocate after being trained by Kay Brerton at the Wellington People’s Centre. Kay is basically one of the best, if not the best, beneficiary advocates in the country. I couldn’t afford to commute from where I lived to Wellington so the advocacywork went by the wayside. I found a Facebook page calling itself the NZ Beneficiaries and Unemployed Workers Union and when it became clear I had quite a bit of benefit knowledge from all sides of the WINZ desk I was asked to be an administrator.

PP: How have you found the role?

Miles: Challenging. Part of the problem is that we don’t have advocates on the ground or even a telephone so we decided to move from advocacy to lobbying for ditching the welfare system in favour of a social security system.

PP: What do you mean by ditching welfare in favour of social security?

Miles: Welfare has become a dirty word these days. It’s almost become a by-word for getting something for nothing whereas social security is based more  on a society where everyone looks after each other from the cradle to the grave. In essence, moving away from the “them versus us” mentality that it implied with the word “welfare” and towards an all-inclusive “we’re all in this together” society.

PP: No doubt you are aware of how much changes to welfare have impacted upon the lives of beneficiaries.

Miles: That’s an understatement!

PP: What have been the main problems facing beneficiaries in recent years?

Miles: The biggest problems have been the rising cost of living, especially in the basic necessities like accommodation, utilities and food, and the increased  pressure being exerted upon beneficiaries to find work at a time when there are few jobs outside of Auckland and Christchurch. It hasn’t helped that many of the people who are being forced to find work are people looking after older children and disabled people who are now being labelled as “fit to work” when they clearly aren’t.

PP: How different is this latest round of reforms as opposed to those of the 1990s?

Miles: Can I just jump in there and say that I don’t like using the word ‘reform’ in relation to welfare changes. To me reform implies a positive improvement in conditions or at least an attempt to achieve that and that just doesn’t apply. Anyway, to answer your question, a key difference is they’re not slashing benefits. Instead, they are forcing beneficiaries to jump through numerous hoops to get the pittance that benefits pay. For example, it’s not unusual for people on the Supported Living Payment(Invalids) to have to go through several agencies just to get all the paperwork they need to get a benefit.

PP: Have you experienced this bureaucratic hoop-jumping yourself?

Miles: Apart from re-applying for the dole every year I have had little problem with the WINZ bureaucracy but that’s because if you don’t have a driver’s licence  in this day in age you’re unemployable and they pretty much accept that. My reason for not having one is a medical condition that isn’t going to change.

PP: What is your experience of being on welfare?

Miles: Let’s just say that I have been on welfare for way too long.

PP: Do you think things will improve or get worse for beneficiaries such as  yourself?

Miles: Undoubtedly they will get worse. Traditionally, the unemployed have always been able to go to Australia if things got really bad but that option is closing as the unemployment rate in Australia continues to increase. There’s the sale of state housing, growing state housing waiting lists and the rapidly rising cost of living in essential things that isn’t reflected in the annual cost of living increase. There’s also the growing trend of passing off the responsibility of providing assistance to those in need onto charities that are either unable or unwilling to look after these people. All of this is going to make things a lot tougher for the most vulnerable New Zealanders. And the cost of food is getting to the point people are unable to maintain a healthy diet and are getting sick as a result.

PP: Do you think that things getting tougher on beneficiaries will lead to civil disorder or large scale protests along the lines of those that were witnessed in 1991 against benefit cuts?

Miles: Frankly, no. Most of the social agencies that were fighting the benefit cuts back then have now become contracted service providers for the Ministry  of Social Development so they won’t bite the hand that now feeds them and others are too busy focussing on specific groups of the poor at the expense of others (i.e treating some poor as the deserving poor and ignoring the rest). This has seen beneficiaries turning on each other at a time when we need to be standing in solidarity against the government.

PP: Do you think a change in government in the 2017 elections will make any real difference for beneficiaries?

Miles: Labour has been no friend of beneficiaries. In their 1999 – 2008 Government the Labour-led government scrapped the Special Benefit in favour of the Temporary Assistance Payment and the Work Start Grant in favour of the Transition to Work Grant. The former has left many beneficiaries in absolute destitution and the latter is restricted to people getting 30 hours of work or more:
a joke when you consider that most jobs are part-time or casual these days.

PP: You stated earlier that you used to work for WINZ. What did you learn from working for them?

Miles: Working for WINZ taught me that abusing case managers as individuals isn’t going to make life any better for beneficiaries. What has to change is the culture of moral cowardice, bullying and humiliation that governs how government agencies like the Ministry of Social Development operates. A corrosive culture of bullying prevails throughout the Ministry of Social Development and both case managers and beneficiaries have copped most of it. A lot of the case managers are appalled by the way beneficiaries are being treated but they can’t say anything because they’re not allowed to because of all these bullshit “Code of Conduct” rules that are more about silencing dissent and covering the arses of management than any genuine concerns about maintaining the political neutrality of the public service.

PP: Don’t you think that that a beneficiary advocate like you defending Case Managers is a conflict of interest?

Miles: Not at all. The crappy service that beneficiaries are getting is the direct result of low morale, large and increasingly unmanageable caseloads, and staff shortages, low or no pay increases, workplace bullying and the lack of support both from their union (the Public Service Association) and their managers. If we want a decent social security system we need to look after both the people who will be on the receiving end of it and the people who deliver it.

PP: How does this view of case managers influence your work with the Union?

Miles: When you know the rules case managers operate by and the general mind-set that prevails in the typical WINZ office it means that I can give practical advice to beneficiaries and it also enables me to explain in plain English what’s going on and why? It also enables the Union to work out how the ideas we come up with can also benefit those who work on the other side of the desk.

PP: Looking at the events in Ashburton last year involving the shooting of the two WINZ staff members and the subsequent suicide of a third how has it influenced the
way you view WINZ?

Miles: It hasn’t. If anything, the tragedy has reinforced my view that a combination of policies that serve no other function other than to divide the poor onto “deserving and undeserving poor”, the relegation of providing essential services to charities that weren’t in any real position to help, the culture of bullying that dumped all of the responsibility for how this man was treated on the shoulders of the case managers and just fobbing people off in the hope they will just go away were all going to end badly. Unfortunately, no one in the Ministry of Social Development appears to have learned anything from it. Like the government they found it easier to demonise beneficiaries as potential threats to public safety than to address the underlying issues within the Ministry of Social Development that allowed this situation to escalate to that degree.

PP: As an anarchist, I’d be curious to know what you think Anarchists could do to help beneficiaries and the unemployed?

Miles: I think it’s important for anarchists to bear in mind that a lot of Beneficiaries have no delusions about the State being nice or benevolent. They might gravitate to anarchism if anarchists learned to talk to them in plain English and not that tiresome jargon-riddled claptrap that university-educated anarchists are so fond of. They would also like anarchists to be more practical. Telling a person “Fuck the rich! Death to Capitalism! Smash the State!” but doing nothing to actually help people isn’t going to win the hearts of beneficiaries or the unemployed. I should add, I’m not saying this in a smug or superior way, a lot of the activist left suffers from the same problems, including socialists.

PP: What do you think beneficiaries and the unemployed could offer anarchists?

Miles: We have the time to be politically active. That can make a huge difference.

PP: Finally, how do people join the Union?

Go to our Facebook page. Read our basic principles and if you agree then “Like”   our page. That’s it.